Over the past few decades Maki sushi has become a much-loved food in the United States, but how did it first arrive in the US, and how did it become so popular?
What is Sushi?
To begin with, it is important to define our terms. There are a few different food items which can all be referred to as sushi. The most famous example of sushi is what is referred to as “maki rolls”. These are the rolls that covered in nori (dried seaweed) and are filled with rice and different ingredients. Despite the fact that most people think of sushi as containing raw fish, maki rolls don’t actually have to have raw fish in them. They can be filled with things like egg, shiitake mushrooms, pickled daikon. They can definitely have raw fish in them, however. There’s a variant of maki sushi known as temaki, which involves wrapping the ingredients in nori cone-style. This is sometimes referred to as a hand roll.
Nigiri is another type of sushi. Nigiri refers to slices of raw fish which are draped over chunks of rice prepared in vinegar. It’s common to have wasabi (ground up horseradish) in the roll as well, though it isn’t strictly necessary.
Finally, there’s sashimi. Sashimi refers to thin strips of raw fish. These strips of fish are often served up on a bed of radish and are frequently served at sushi places along with maki rolls and nigiri. Technically though, they are not a type of sushi. The term sushi applies to both maki rolls and nigiri, but not sashimi. In other words, sushi refers only to raw fish or other ingredients like daikon served with clumps of rice, the dried seaweed is optional.
Now that we’ve covered what is and isn’t sushi, how did sushi come to be? Furthermore, how was did it become popular in the United States?
The Creation of Sushi
As an island nation, Japan has been eating fish for a long time. However, the dish we know as sushi was originally born during the 18th century, and it came out of a practice originally done in China. The Chinese had a method of preserving salted fish by wrapping in balls of fermented rice. The rice was just used as a preservative and was tossed out when the fish was eaten. Japan imported this method of preservation from China, but with an added twist, they ate the fermented rice along with the fish. This type of rice/fish combo became known as nare-zushi or haya-zushi (aged fish).
The 1800s in Japan, known as the Edo period, saw a massive explosion of food stalls and corner side restaurants. These could be considered similar to modern day fast-food restaurants. New dishes were developed to cater to clientele who were busy and on the move, nigiri-zushi was created sometime during this time period.
Around 1820 a man by the name of Hanaya Yohei came to Edo, what is now Tokyo. Yohei is typically given credit as the inventor of the modern nigiri sushi, and he devised a method of fermenting the rice which greatly reduced preparation time. He added vinegar and salt to the rice, and after it sat for a few minutes, hand-pressed it. He then topped the rice with slices of raw fish. The rice wasn’t needed to preserve the fish because it was so fresh, so it became part of the meal instead. Using this method the sushi could be made very quickly, in just a few minutes rather than days or hours.
Yohei’s method of sushi preparation is fairly close to how sushi is made today, and thus it can be reasonably said that this is where modern sushi was born. Yohei also introduced the practice of combining wasabi into the dish, something that is still done today.
A famine struck Edo in 1833, which led to the government instituting a ban on luxury items. Apparently, both Yohei and other sushi chefs were arrested for violating these laws, though the laws and reforms quickly failed and the popularity of sushi continued to boom. Sushi proved so popular in Japan that during September of 1923, there were hundreds of roadside sushi carts on the streets of Tokyo. After the Great Kanto Earthquake struck Tokyo, prices for land in the city plummeted. This meant that fledgling sushi chefs could afford to buy brick and mortar restaurants in the city, and as a side effect sushi carts became rarer and rarer. Sushi was served primarily indoors by the 1950s.
Sushi’s Popularity in America
The 1970s saw refrigeration become cheaper and easier, meaning that it was now possible to ship fish over long distances and have it remain fresh. Japan’s economy was also booming during this time, successfully recovering from the post-war period. Japan’s sushi industry grew and new restaurants and distributors opened throughout the country. Along with this expansion came a surge in interest in sushi, from countries around the world, including the United States.
It is often thought that the first American city to become home to a significant sushi business was Los Angeles. 1966 saw Noritoshi Kanai open a restaurant called the Kawafuku Restaurant in Little Tokyo. Kawafuku had traditional nigiri sushi on its menu, and it was popular with Japanese businessmen. The traveling Japanese businessmen would then introduce the restaurant to their American friends. Sushi would become mainstream in the US after the Osho restaurant opened outside Little Tokyo and targeted Hollywood celebrities. This event catalyzed the opening of sushi bars in Chicago, New York, and other large cities, helping sushi establish a permanent presence in the US.
Sushi is constantly evolving, and new variations with new ingredients are being invented all the time. The famous California Roll, an inside-out maki sushi roll with the rice on the outside, was invented in Los Angeles as its name implies. This is also true of the spicy tuna roll. US-based versions of sushi include the Philadelphia roll which has salmon, cream cheese, and cucumber. These sushi variations have made their way back to Japan where they are served in new-wave sushi restaurants, a fusion of American and Japanese culture that is distinct from traditional Japanese sushi.